IN CASE you missed it what with all the misery surrounding the Home Nations narrow defeats at the weekend, France also suffered at the hands of the southern hemisphere. Their 23-20 loss to Argentina in Cordoba was Les Bleus eighth defeat in 11 matches against the Pumas, writes Gavin Mortimer.
France have the chance to level the two-Test series this Saturday when they face Argentina in Tucuman but coach Philippe Saint-Andre was brutally honest in his assessment of the defeat. Asked in an interview with L’Equipe, the French sports daily, if his side had failed to close out the game having led at half-time, Saint-Andre snapped: “The truth is that in the Top 14 final props of both sides [Toulouse and Toulon] were foreign. The fly-halves also. So there you are. End of story.”
It’s not the first time Saint-Andre has criticised the number of overseas players in the Top 14 (despite his having been in charge of Toulon for two years) and the detrimental effect it’s having on the national side. But what can be done about it?
Unlike the comparatively smooth relationship that now exists between the RFU and the leading English clubs, relations in France are far more fractious with Saint-Andre – like his predecessor Marc Lievremont – bemoaning the lack of time he has with his players. He was at it again in the L’Equipe interview, saying of Argentina: “They have 25 players who have been in a World Cup-type training camp ahead of the Four Nations later this summer, and all paid for by the French clubs! And us [France], we tried to have three and a half days before taking on a side who have had three weeks together.”
Saint-Andre has a point. Three of the French XV – Louis Picamoles, Florian Fritz and Yoann Maestri – that started against the Pumas had been playing in the final of the Top 14 seven days earlier before jumping on a plane and arriving exhausted on the other side of the world.
Saint-Andre is aware that he’s echoing the complaints made by his predecessors and he’s realistic to acknowledge it’s highly unlikely the FFR [French Federation] and LNR [the Top 14 governing body] will cooperate to make his life easier. Only recently the top clubs mooted the idea of expanding the Top 14 by two clubs, a crazy idea considering the already packed fixture list. Fortunately the proposal didn’t come to pass but Saint-Andre remains pessimistic about the future.
One of the most startling statistics to emerge from the recent Top 14 season was that both the semi-finals and the final of the competition failed to produce a single try: imagine, 240 minutes of rugby and no one managed to dot down for a five pointer. The Top 14 final was roundly acknowledged by the neutral to have been one of the most tedious matches in the league’s 120-year history and who can forget the all-French borefest that was this year’s Amlin Cup final between Biarritz and Toulon. Again not a try to be seen.
The brutal fact is – and let’s hope the Welsh boys heading to France next season are aware of this – players in France are being worked into the ground. The final of the Top 14 was on June 9 and the 2012-13 season kicks off on August 18. Compare that with the Aviva Premiership, which climaxed on May 26 and reconvenes on September 1. French players are exhausted most of the year round, and Saint-Andre knows it. As he admitted sardonically of the defeat to Argentina: “It wasn’t a match of high quality but the ball was in play for 11 minutes more than the Top 14 final.”
French flair isn’t dead but it’s in a deep sleep.